Trolley vs. Track
Greater Vancouver is a region with a variety of urban development, geographical challenges and even micro-climates. A snowy morning in Surrey could well have only drizzle in downtown Vancouver. This presents a variety of challenges for transportation planners, and what works in one area may not necessarily work in another. The transportation network developed by TransLink over the years incorporates a variety of transportation systems that work for those particular areas.
Trolley buses have proven to be energy-efficient, reliable workhorses in the high-density downtown and along built up north-south urban arterials in the city. While trolley routes are not as flexible as routes served by diesels, they do convey a sense of permanence in the community.
Trolley buses do require a large up-front investment in overhead and the buses themselves. However, both investments will last a long time. Electric trolleys are definitely quieter than diesels and are emission-free; if the electricity is generated by environmentally friendly means, that’s an added bonus. We note the ongoing debate as to whether hydroelectricity is, in fact, green. BC Hydro, with the GPCs we mentioned above, does consider hydroelectricity to be brown power. Nonetheless, if a city has a large enough population and has essentially reached the end of its urban sprawl, a trolley system can be a popular route to go in these environmentally sensitive times.
SkyTrain has enabled expansion of the region eastward, allowing the development of a number of higher density sub-centers and promoting two-way traffic along the lines. The grade separation allows the train to ride over the traffic, while the centralized operations system allows for greater control over all the trains and more efficient responses to situations. Like the trolley bus system, it requires major expenditure up-front, but once built, can be counted on to last a long time. The original SkyTrain vehicles, which went into service in 1986, are still in use and are only now considered to be at mid-life. Here again, the anticipated volume of ridership both currently and over the next few decades would have to justify that expenditure. We have also found that public relations reminders are needed, pointing out the efficiency, fuel savings, reduced traffic congestion and amount of greenhouse gas not being produced by private vehicles. As with subways and true bus rapid transit systems, the speed of the commute is another major selling point.
A light-rail transit system requires less up-front investment in trackage and stations, but also requires dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority systems to be in place, to allow the trains to get around traffic. Here, too, the selling points are less about speed of the commute and more about the advantage of moving a large number of people at once and the resulting reduction in traffic congestion.
Drew Snider is a media relations consultant for TransLink in Vancouver, B.C.